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Before Hell’s Kitchen was New York’s favorite gayborhood; before Pride and marches and gay marriage, Josephine Baker was flying the flag for diversity.
Married four times (the first when she was just 13), the actress, dancer, and activist also had multiple relationships with women – among them Frida Kahlo.
She was beloved by the drag world, including Coccinelle, the first transsexual to be recognized as a woman in France.
And while her sexuality is still a topic of hot debate, Jean-Claude Baker, her son and biographer, and founder of the restaurant on W42nd Street that bears her name, once insisted: “She was what today you would call bisexual, and I will tell you why. Forget that I am her son, I am also a historian. You have to put her back into the context of the time in which she lived. In those days, chorus girls were abused by the white or black producers and by the leading men if he liked girls. But they could not sleep together because there were not enough hotels to accommodate black people. So they would all stay together, and the girls would develop lady lover friendships.”
Born June 3 in St Louis, by the age of 13 she was living on the streets, scavenging for food, and making a living by dancing on street corners and at the Old Chauffeur’s Club. It was here she met her first husband. The marriage lasted less than a year.
At 15, she headed to New York, and performed at the Plantation Club and on Broadway in shows including Shuffle Along, before sailing for Paris, where she found fame for her erotic dancing (her skirt made from a string of artificial bananas is the stuff of legend). Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
“Married four times (the first when she was just 13), the actress, dancer, and activist also had multiple relationships with women.”
During World War II, now a French citizen, she worked for the Resistance, gathering information at parties and carrying sensitive information with her as she traveled around Europe. Her efforts won her the Croix de Guerre. She was also an active supporter of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and was the only woman speaker at the march on Washington in 1963, standing at the side of the Rev Martin Luther King.
During this time – again, before Mia Farrow or Angelina Jolie – she began adopting a family she called her “Rainbow Tribe” – 13 children of different ethnicities and religions – of whom Jean-Claude was one.
Josephine died in April 1975, and 11 years later Jean-Claude opened Chez Josephine as a tribute, filling it with her memorabilia – paintings, sculptures, posters, and more.
Jean-Claude died in January 2015, but the restaurant remains a celebration of a woman who really was ahead of her time.
This story originally appeared in W42ST’s Pride issue in June 2017. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you subscribe to our daily newsletter at w42st.com